What is a ghost? This is what Guillermo del Toro asks us in The Devil’s Backbone (2001). While the questions that follow are still up for interpretation, I think the real message is that ghosts can be friends. Once again, as is true for most gothic stories, this is not a ghost story more than it is a story with a ghost.
The story follows Carlos, a young boy dropped off at a home for orphans after his tutor drops him off unexpectedly. Carlos is bullied by a boy at the school, up until they end up becoming friends, and sees the ghost of Santi, a young boy who had gone missing following a bomb dropped on the school. Turns out the groundskeeper of the school, Jacinto, killed him by accident when only trying to punish him for misbehavior. Rather than confessing to the crime, Jacinto pushes the body into a pool, where he and his ghost remain.
The ghost of Santi requests that Carlos bring him Jacinto so he can take him down into the depths of the water with him for all of the abuse he has caused everyone at the orphanage. After all, Jacinto does light it on fire, killing many staff and children, and harming many more. He is nothing but evil, trying to take these people out in search of the gold that is said to be on the property.
What comes of this request from Santi is the bond between himself and Carlos, to begin. Carlos is not afraid of Santi and sees him as one of their own. Santi is not here to harm the boys who live at the orphanage, he wants to prevent the harm that can come to them from this authority figure. Carlos treats Santi as he would any of the boys who are alive and spends his time seeking out justice for the boy, despite never knowing him in life.
Though Carlos is originally bullied by the other boys, it does become clear quickly that the threat to all of these characters is not a new person at the center, but rather this violent patriarchal force who has power over them. Once it is revealed to them all that Santi has not been missing, but rather was killed by their superior, the orphan boys band together to defeat their common enemy.
We get a montage where they sharpen some wooden poles and set up a plan to stab Jacinto and deliver him into the watery hell for Santi. They, of course, complete their task together and become a found family to support one another. The film ends with the boys leaving their home, which is now in ruins since their authority figures have all been killed in the fire set by Jacinto. Jacinto may have taken their safety net away from them, but they still have each other.
The Devil’s Backbone is violent, as del Toro films usually are, but it maintains a wholesome demeanor and tone to accompany the story’s main players. The boys in the film are able to break the mold of hyper-masculinity presented before them and find empathy for one another, a lesson that certainly comes from their interactions with Santi. Carlos is the main advocate for this way of life, free from turning against one another, and teaches the rest of the orphans that they are stronger together.
Watching the boys walk out of their orphanage, holding each other up and ready to make the journey to a new, sustainable life is a breath of fresh air. The movie is really a love letter to friendship and the power that community has to overcome the bad guys. Another win for del Toro with this one and I would recommend it for anyone who needs a reminder that there is, in fact, power in the people.